Inside Mikey Devlin's move to Hibs as Lee Johnson outlines defender's qualities
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The former Aberdeen and Hamilton centre-back spent a period of time training with the Capital club following his January departure from Fleetwood Town, whom he had joined last summer after leaving Pittodrie, and impressed the coaching staff to the extent that he earned himself a short-term contract. Devlin had other offers but was keen to do everything possible to win a deal with Hibs.
“A couple of weeks ago I didn’t quite anticipate getting an opportunity from a club like Hibs,” he said. “Over the last week or so I’ve had the opportunity to be involved in training and I’m absolutely thrilled to have the opportunity to be at a club like Hibs. I’m delighted. The last week has been great, I actually feel like I’ve been enjoying my football again, which is quite refreshing.”
Transfers are all different, some long and drawn out and a case of which club blinks first, while others are more straightforward. So how did Devlin’s move to Hibs come about?
“It was one that crept up on us a little bit,” Johnson told the Evening News. “He was on our list last month because he’s a quality player, and what clubs are looking for in the January window is affordable, accessible, available, and match-fit players. While we knew Mikey was affordable, accessible, and available, that match-fitness was a little bit in question.
"Then the window closed and we were in the free-agent market and we felt he was top of that list. He’s had a tough time over the last couple of years with injuries but he’s a very good player and decision-maker, and we think Hibs is the perfect environment for the medium-term.”
Planning is already under way at Hibs for next season, even with a Director of Football still to be appointed after chief executive Ben Kensell’s announcement at the start of last month that the club would be seeking to add to its senior management structure. Depending on how things go for Devlin over the remainder of the campaign, he may well be offered the chance to extend his stay at Easter Road – and with loanees CJ Egan-Riley and Will Fish due to return to their parent clubs in the summer, having a sense of continuity could help.
"Short-term, he might not be involved in the next two games, which gives us a four-week process to get him up to speed for where we need him,” Johnson continued. “If we can get somewhere between five and seven appearances out of him, and then keep rejuvenating his body and get him back to where he could be, going into next season we have the potential to look at it again and think a bit more longer-term.
"It’s not just the gametime for Mikey, it’s also the biomechanics of the body, trusting himself 100 per cent, being able to do three training sessions in a row, then four, and being able to play two games in a week, then three. It’s all those little markers that you’re trying to tick off.”
Hibs now have a centre-back quartet to meet Johnson’s needs – two experienced heads, and two younger players. In a relatively short space of time Hibs have gone from having no central defenders on the bench to having four first-team players with international caps who can mix and match depending on individuals needs. Egan-Riley’s versatility has seen him deployed at right-back in his first couple of appearances but the Burnley loanee is more than capable of playing in the middle and that could end up being crucial as Johnson looks to ensure that no more senior players are lost to injury, having seen an astonishing 17 players miss competitive matches with various knocks and issues.
"With the four who we can now play at centre-half – CJ, Fish, Paul Hanlon, and now Mikey – we have the opportunity to mix things up a bit,” he added. “Paul’s had a bit of a hamstring issue over the last three or four games, but CJ and Fish have played very few league games so you’d question if the organisation and structure would be right to play those two together, for instance.”
The departure of Ryan Porteous and injury to Rocky Bushiri left Hibs in a precarious place, especially with Hanlon managing an injury. But the expected departure of the 23-year-old allowed Hibs to prime Fish for first-team involvement, and the on-loan Manchester United defender has impressed alongside the club captain in the last three matches, keeping two clean sheets. Egan-Riley’s versatility is perhaps his headline quality but the former Manchester City youngster has shown in just two appearances why his signing was such a coup for Hibs.
"To have two senior centre-halves and two talented young ones is something we’ve needed,” Johnson said. “Ryan was a big loss, he was a good player for us, but in the background we’ve been working away with Fish. Then you’ve got CJ. He’s a top player, a very, very good player and I think one that went under the radar a little bit as a signing.
"I’m delighted with what we’ve brought in during the January window, and also what we let go. That’s no disrespect to the players who have left, but I’ve spoken previously about the malaise and that will to drive the culture and create an elite environment here. I’m starting to sense that now, and it became an obsession to get those guys out and playing games, because at the moment it feels like every player in the building has a genuine chance to go and affect the team and more importantly, a match.”